The Winchelsea cellars, or undercrofts, are an important part of the town’s medieval history. Visitors can easily identify the tops of cellar entrances at ground level, but the size, scale and beauty of what lies below can only be appreciated by a visit underground.
Thirty-three accessible medieval cellars still exist and the sites of another 17 are known. They lie mostly in the northern quadrant of the town nearest to the river Brede. Very likely there were others, in the Winchelsea that has gone, in the areas to the south and west of the existing town. Cellars in English towns are not unique to Winchelsea, but only Norwich, Southampton and Chester have similar numbers.
The cellars’ locations in Winchelsea are recorded. Their shape and size measured and we know at least some of the goods that were stored there, but we have little idea how they were built or who built them. There is no record of their builders. Relatively few historic references have been left of the builders of England’s medieval churches and castles and few descriptions of the building methods used. The recorders of history were educated men, not artisans or builders. The records left usually indicate only the patrons of the buildings, the materials used, their source and costs; sometimes the numbers of different artisans employed and their wages. The name of the architect or master mason may have been recorded.
Today we have to puzzle out the building methods involved. While the skills of timber frame building have been revived, the skills of building in stone to medieval standards have rarely been. Major exceptions include the rebuilding of Buckfast Abbey in Devon during the early 1900s by the monks themselves, the building of Quarr Abbey in in the Isle of Wight in brick and the new tower of St Edmundsbury Cathedral, completed in 2005.
Medieval etchings of national importance have been discovered in the cellar at Blackfriars Barn in Winchelsea, East Sussex (notes from the National Trust website).
During remedial work to prepare the cellar for opening to the public in 2013, some intriguing etchings were found. It has since been confirmed that the markings depict a fleet of 12 ships and are likely to be the earliest of their kind ever found.
The country’s leading expert, Matthew Champion, said:
The Winchelsea graffiti is a very significant discovery in terms of medieval inscriptions.
Whilst ship graffiti has been found at a number of locations it is extremely rare to be able to give it a firm medieval date. All the examples that we looked at would appear to date to the early 15th century; a time when Winchelsea was still a bustling medieval port. Their size and location, in a medieval cellar, also make them highly unusual and pose a number of very interesting questions. Most obviously, who made them and why?
Whilst research into these inscriptions will continue, it is clear that they are an important discovery. To find one or two clearly datable medieval ships would be significant. To find a small fleet of them across a whole wall is simply unique – a fantastic find.
The cellar under Blackfriars Barn dates from about 1330. The site was used as a barn during the 19th century. But demolition of the barn and subsequent fire in the early 20th century revealed that it was constructed around the ruins of a large and significant building dated to the early 14th century.